Interning at Airbnb with a disability
How I found a space of belonging and growth as someone with a disability in the Airbnb community.
My name is Hilary Sun, and I’m a master’s student at Stanford University finishing my M.S in Computer Science. I worked as an engineering intern for the past twelve weeks on the Trust - Financial Fraud team, which keeps Airbnb’s business safe and secure by minimizing fraudulent financial losses while providing the best user experience possible. I was also a member of Able@, an Airfinity group here at Airbnb for employees with varying disabilities and allies.
Airfinity groups are Airbnb’s Employee Resource Groups, which foster a sense of belonging for employees through common experiences and identities. Additionally, Airfinity groups drive community and advocacy initiatives, plan and host events for on-campus and off-campus communities, and connect allies to causes they want to support and learn more about. Able@ is a space designed for empowering and supporting its members as well as engaging in advocacy, such as meeting employees’ accessibility needs and working with community organizations such as Autism Advantage.
I identify as having a disability, a part of my identity that I never really explored until this year. Growing up, I had always been told that disability was defined based on how visible it was. As someone who could hide my chronic illness, I felt uncomfortable taking up space in the community of those with disabilities.
My illness had always been construed as something negative, shameful, and limiting; my body became something that needed to be “fixed.” When I was diagnosed, I weaved in and out of hospitals and treatments, and everyone seemed to know exactly what I needed except for me. I didn’t belong in my body anymore. It became something foreign, uncontrollable, and inescapable.
By college, I finally had the space away from my family to try to learn what my body needed, by myself and at my own pace. By the time I stepped into Airbnb for the first day of my internship, I was just starting to explore the idea of ability and disability, but it was enough for me to decide to go to my first Able@ lunch.
Being in Able@ has simultaneously empowered and humbled me. It has been the first place I could talk about my disability without feeling ashamed. I was constantly being introduced to new vocabulary — some I identified with and others I knew I had to learn more about. Articles, resources, events, and accessibility meetups were shared, opening my eyes to a whole community of advocates and ways to engage. At meetings and lunches, we laughed and chatted about everything from the amazing accessibility work that employees are doing within Airbnb to ensure the platform is more inclusive, to poetry by Ocean Vuong and Pablo Neruda. We even went on an Airbnb experience together: the San Francisco Blind Café Experience, where we dined in complete darkness while listening to stories shared by the hosts and other diners.
What drew me to Airbnb was its dedication to belonging, and after being here this summer, I can tell that this community is truly something special. I’m learning to feel comfortable again in my body — to celebrate its limitations as something beautiful and unique and inseparable from me. I’m learning to voice what I need — this summer was the first where I talked to my manager about my needs, and he responded with support and respect. I’m learning all the ways that I need to expand my view of inclusivity, and the communities that I have been unaware of that I need to learn more about. All of this I hope to bring back to my community work at Stanford this school year.
One moment at the Blind Café Experience speaks the most to my sense of belonging. As I sat in the darkness, eyes open but not seeing, I could taste the cold steel of panic rising up in my throat and tried to stifle the urge to bolt. “Can I hold your hand?” I asked to no one in particular. Moments later, I felt the hands of Able@ members on both sides of me grip my fingers, and my heart rate steadied. In that moment, I felt grounded, at peace, and brave enough to let go a few minutes later to find my fork and begin dining.
Thank you Airbnb and Able@ for providing for me this space of growth and learning this summer.